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Montana’s Legislative Council is right to review the legislature’s policy on sexual harassment. The bipartisan council directed the chief of legislative services to research what other states are doing and report back at the council’s next meeting in March.

So far so good.

But at least one legislative leader is distinctly against acknowledging that the problem in Montana is likely to be as serious as it is in other state legislatures. As reported Sunday by Holly Michels of Lee Newspapers, Senate President Scott Sales has said that he received only one formal complaint of sexual harassment during his seven legislative terms, which includes serving as Speaker of the House.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Sales, a Bozeman Republican, said during the council’s December meeting. “We have a great track record if we don’t have any official complaints.”

That is an outrageous conclusion. Most of the substantiated revelations that have been publicized nationally during the past couple of years weren’t formally reported. Nevertheless, the harassment and assaults occurred.

What state leaders should seek is elimination of sexual harassment -- not elimination of complaints.

Sales expressed concern that he and other male legislators protect themselves from harassment claims by keeping the door open when meeting with women and or having another person present when meeting with a woman.

Frankly, Sales’ view reflects low expectations of women generally and low expectations for male legislators. No-harassment rules should be clear for all. Everyone who participates in the Montana Legislature should be expected to treat everyone else with dignity and respect.

The legislature’s joint rule on harassment presently focuses on protecting lawmakers and legislative staff from harassment, but doesn’t appear to cover harassment of other individuals who participate in the legislature, such as lobbyists, journalists and other members of the public.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, is correct in saying that the legislature is a unique gathering of individuals. All deserve to be treated with respect and dignity in the people’s assembly.

Fortunately for Montana, the Legislative Council doesn’t have to start from square one to write an appropriately effective and inclusive rule.

The National Conference of State Legislatures surveyed states in October, reviewed state policies and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. Last week, the NCSL posted recommendations for elements of strong legislative sexual harassment policy:

  • A clear definition of “sexual harassment.”
  • Examples of what behaviors are considered inappropriate in the workplace.
  • A policy that applies to legislators and staff, as well as nonemployees, such as lobbyists and outside vendors.
  • A diversity of contacts within the legislature to whom sexual harassment can be reported, allowing the complainant to bypass reporting to his or her direct supervisor.
  • A clear statement prohibiting retaliation for the filing of any claim.
  • A statement providing for confidentiality, to the extent possible, for all parties involved.
  • Specific examples of potential discipline, if warranted.
  • The possibility of involving parties outside the legislature to assist in the investigation, if it is warranted or requested.
  • An appeal procedure.
  • A statement informing the complainant that she or he can also file a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or the state’s human rights commission.

The Montana Legislative Council will hear more about the NCSL recommendations when it next meets in March. Lawmakers of both sexes and both political parties should take that advice to heart and strengthen the rule to prevent harassment before the legislature convenes again.

— The Billings Gazette


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